The North Carolina Board of Education and the new state schools superintendent sat down this week for their first meeting. Republican Board Chairman Bill Cobey introduced his new GOP colleague. There was no hint that Johnson and the board are locked in a power struggle.
The disagreement is over which one of them is in charge of the Department of Public Instruction. Republican lawmakers say it's Johnson. The board says it's them. That struggle will begin playing out in court soon. WFAE's Lisa Worf joins Morning Edition host Marshall Terry now.
MT: Lisa, what's this power struggle all about?
LW: The Board of Education has been the one to run the state's k-12 school system. The exact words are to "supervise and administer" the system and its budget. And so it's the board of education that oversees the Department of Public Instruction, not the elected state school superintendent. But a new law would change that. It was one of several the Republican legislature pushed through during last month's special session. It would put the new superintendent Mark Johnson in charge.
MT: Why did the legislature decide to do that?
LW: I asked that to one of the bill's sponsors, Representative Craig Horn of Union County. He said he like other lawmakers called the new superintendent to congratulate him and ask how he could help and Johnson told him.
HORN: All I was simply trying to accomplish is to allow the superintendent the power the superintendent felt he needed in order to effectively make some changes in the department of public instruction.
LW: The law would also give Johnson a lot more leeway to hire and fire top-level employees in the Department of Public Instruction. Horn said it's important for the superintendent to have people he knows are onboard with his plan.
MT: Without the new law, what authority does the state superintendent have?
LW: Not too much. The superintendent relies on the board for his direction. So now we're talking about changing the power structure. The school board's argument is a constitutional one. That phrase I used earlier "supervise and administer" that comes from the state constitution, which lays out the powers for the board and the superintendent. The lawsuit says HB17 is unconstitutional because it transfers that power to the superintendent. Horn and Senate Leader Phil Berger say it simply returns "basic administrative powers" the superintendent had before 1995. At that time, there had been friction between Superintendent Bob Etheridge and the state board of education. That year lawmakers from both parties decided to limit the superintendent's role with legislation. To that this board of education would say, there was no need to pass a law, all anyone needed to do was refer to the state constitution.